The city was exactly like when I left it. An aqua sky that looked like it had been smudged over with a grey crayon, a thin veil of smoky pollution from factories whose effect from their isolated countryside locations carried over to the island side of Hong Kong. May was a month in which the city hovered between sweltering hot and cooling breezes, summer and spring. The skyscrapers still towered above a large piece of ocean, the glinting exterior of the buildings reflecting wisps of white clouds that slid slowly across the sky.
The apartment had changed though. Fresh tower blocks had sprung up around the two that already existed, and the outside of the building had been patched with glittering off-white stones. From afar, the methodological steps-like pattern that ran up the 50 levels created by the jutted out semicircle balconies on each floor looked like steps leading up to the sky.
A new shopping mall had opened nearby the apartment. It was a small building, only three storeys high, and the shops inside were local businesses, cheap remakes of clothes, shoes and bags with higher values. Each shop had only a small interior space, each wall crammed with clothes or shoes, stationary or books, toys or technology starting from the ground to the ceiling. A Cantonese radio channel was blared over speakers inside the mall.
The incident happened on my second trip to the mall. A shop on the top floor that sold remakes of American branded clothes had stayed open later than usual because of the surge of customers. I walked in mindlessly, lacking any specific destination, and flicked through a rack full of what appeared to be Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts.
There were about five customers in the shop, all Chinese except for a woman with rusty blond hair who looked to be on university vacation, skimming through a rack of American Eagle jeans. The shop assistant was leaning against a small table at the far corner of the shop, idly varnishing her nails, feet tapping on the ground. What originally was black hair had been dyed a pale orange, almost like desert sand. She constantly raised her eyes to the clock on the wall, her feet tapping twice as fast as the seconds that ticked by. A mobile phone was wedged between her shoulder and her ear, her head tilted to the right to keep the phone in place.
The woman with rusty hair turned to the assistant. "Excuse me. Do you have a bigger size for this pair of jeans?" She spoke slowly.
The assistant muttered "hold on" in Cantonese into her phone and looked up. I watched her eyes narrow; a scornful look crossed her face fleetingly. She eyed the woman, who spoke with a British accent, up and down, then shook her head and replied in heavily Cantonese accented English, "No la," then, under her breath in mocking Cantonese, "no size that will fit you, anyway."
The woman looked confused. "She just said there aren't any bigger sizes," I told her, sympathy expanding in my chest.
"Oh." She looked crestfallen. "That's too bad. This would have worked with a top I bought yesterday." Replacing the jeans on the rack, she glanced at me curiously. "You have an American accent. Where do you come from?" She spoke much more rapidly to me than she had to the assistant earlier.
"Oh, I'm local. I just went overseas to study." I replied.
We had a pleasant conversation for five minutes. Then the assistant finally stood up, the phone still pressed to her ears.
Giving a final blow on her nails, she turned to say to the remaining customers in impatient Cantonese: "We're closing in five minutes."
Her eyes flew over to me. The same scornful look came into her eyes, only this time it remained in them, almost like a challenge. It was like a she had placed a piece of paper in the middle of a bridge, and was daring me to pick it up. When she spoke, she repeated what she said before but in deliberate English: "We're closing in five minutes."
She returned to her phone conversation, and her words, spoken clearly and loudly in Cantonese, floated over the small conversation in the shop. "God, you know those Chinese girls that don't even speak Canto? They annoy me so much. Western wannabes, that's what they are."
The three local schoolgirls also in the shop at the time snorted and giggled, shooting amused glances in my direction. The piece of paper lay, quite still, in the middle of the bridge.
In every cocktail of pain, there is humiliation thrown in with shame, shock and disbelief, all the ingredients then whirred in a blender before poured into a cup and then thrown in your face. I felt like I had an extra large cocktail splashed all over me.
Before I could speak, the girl was briskly gathering people out of the door. The piece of paper was blown away by the wind. I glanced around the store, filled with fake American branded clothing—Hollister, Abercrombie and Fitch, American Eagle.
The shop assistant was waiting by the door, hand on hip, eyebrows raised, hair gleaming almost blonde. I left without a word.
Author's Note: the first thing I've written in a while which came out without any struggle. You know that totally-submerged-in-writing zone? Haven't been there for some time, it was nice to be able to write again. Like a lot of other short stories, this is based on personal experience.